ESPERANCE cattle and sheep farmer Erica Ayers was at the heart of the United Kingdom's foot and mouth disease (FMD) disaster in 2001.
Working as a veterinarian on the ground, she was in charge of investigating, diagnosing and total flock and herd slaughter on infected properties in Dumfries, Scotland.
Two decades have passed, but the memories are forever etched in her mind.
"It is incredibly confronting even now," Ms Ayers said.
"I would hate for us to face a similar situation here in Australia and WA.
"It would be catastrophic - emotionally and economically - to the agricultural industry and broader community."
Ms Ayers spent three months working in the outbreak in Dumfries, which had more than 200 confirmed cases (of 2030 total cases UK-wide).
In the early weeks of the outbreak she investigated and followed up on reports from farmers, who suspected their livestock were infected.
"A large number of those calls were positive cases," Ms Ayers said.
"Infected premises were slaughtered out within a 24-hour target and adjoining properties within a 72-hour target.
"As the vet on the ground, I would liaise with the farmer and I was also responsible for the animal welfare in that process.
"The clean-up team would come in after that."
Leave work clothes and boots on-property when travelling overseas to reduce the risk of contamination and;
Delay contact between livestock and anyone who has recently travelled.
As FMD cases continue to increase in Indonesia, Ms Ayers said Australians needed to remain very vigilant and aware of the risk, but not panic.
She said the outbreak in holiday hotspot Bali significantly increased the risk to WA.
This was due to the close and intermingled proximity of livestock and tourists, as well as the volume of people moving between them.
Ms Ayers' experience proved useful in Esperance grower group ASHEEP's partnership with the national FMD Ready Project, which Charles Sturt University ran between 2018-2020.
The farmer-led project used FMD as a model to prepare and prevent the incursion of an emergency animal disease in Australia.
It was just one arm of the broader research project, targeted to improve animal health surveillance and disease management.
Livestock producers were joined by other industry representatives, including agents, transporters, shearers, processors, veterinarians and the local council.
Ms Ayers said major risks identified by the group for the Esperance region were addressed by ASHEEP and educated members, as well as the broader community.
She said education was ongoing, particularly in the context of the current heightened disease risk.
"Some major learnings included the importance of regular disease and animal health surveillance onfarm and at each step of the industry chain," Ms Ayers said.
"This includes not only producers, but those in regular contact with livestock such as agents, truckies, vets, saleyards and processors.
"We all need to know what to look for and critically who to contact if we see unusual signs of disease."
Ms Ayers said the Department of Primary Industries Research Development-funded disease investigation program significantly contributed to veterinary and laboratory costs associated with livestock disease investigations.
She said this was accessed through private or department veterinarians.
"If the disease was to enter Australia, the speed we find, identify and contain it is crucial," Ms Ayres said.
"For every day it remains undetected, the severity of the outbreak and length of time to declare freedom of disease increases exponentially."
Small landholders, major risk
Small landholders and peri-urban areas, near towns and cities, could be a major risk to disease establishing in Australia.
Particularly among those who have returned from Bali and have a couple of sheep, goats or alpacas in their backyard, Ms Ayers warned.
In many instances, such livestock are kept as pets, meaning close contact is more likely.
Ms Ayers said this was concerning given the virus could survive on shoes and clothing for an extended time - even more so if it was protected in organic material.
"With education on thorough cleaning and laundering of clothes and footwear, as well as a short livestock contact quarantine period upon return, these risks can be largely mitigated," she said.
"In addition, many of those small landholders - who anecdotally have livestock - do not have a property identification code (PIC)."
To put it simply - no PIC means no recorded livestock movements.
Ms Ayers said the National Identification System (NLIS) played an integral role in livestock traceability and early disease detection, leaving Australia well-positioned even without electronic identification.
However, how effectively this worked depended on whether or not people were doing the right thing by registering a PIC.
"If you're a bonafide livestock farmer you need a PIC to sell livestock, you need to be Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) accredited and you need to be completing National Vendor Declarations with every livestock movement," she said.
"But for hobby farmers, who may only have a couple of animals in the backyard and - even though they are required to - many don't have PICs."
Ms Ayers said registering and keeping all livestock movements up-to-date on the LPA database was one of the most critical steps in contact tracing and containing FMD.
She urged all livestock producers to register animal movements on the LPA database in a timely manner.
"Individual identity isn't important, as long as the group was recorded accurately,'' she said.
"The NLIS system is a real plus and a major improvement on what happened in the UK, when authorities scrambled to process paper slips."
Beef up the borders
Did you know FMD can travel for up to three kilometres in the wind?
Or that it has the potential to survive for 24-36 hours in the respiratory tracts of humans and several weeks on plant material or dirt on boots or clothing?
Or perhaps even more concerning, is that it can survive for up to nine months in processed meats and dairy products - particularly given this has been considered the most likely way disease could enter Australia.
"Every year tonnes of illegal meat and dairy products are seized at our borders," Ms Ayers said.
"A significant percentage of these are contaminated with FMD and other viruses of significance such as African swine fever."
Ms Ayers said safeguards and penalties for illegally importing food into Australia were not harsh enough and should reflect the risk.
She said often people were seen with entire suitcases of food material, given a $300 fine and sent on their way.
"It is an absolute joke - the government really needs to step up and put these people on the first returning flight back to their country," Ms Ayers said.
"That would get the message out there very quickly.
"In recent days there have been some welcome additions to biosecurity procedures at airports, mail centres and ports.
"The importance of these can not be underestimated but more needs to be done."
Severe veterinary shortages, no biosecurity officer and port management have been flagged as concerns in Esperance.
Despite being a major livestock area, Ms Ayers said there hadn't been a departmental veterinarian within 500 kilometres of the town for 10 years.
She said this was a huge issue, particularly given the biosecurity officer position had also been vacant for most of the past two to three years.
"This raises serious concerns about the ability to manage an outbreak of FMD and is extremely concerning.
"One of the main learnings from the UK outbreak is that farmer-departmental relationships are so important.
"It is critical to have people on the ground to support producers who know the area and have trusted relationships - this is vastly lacking."
As for port management, Ms Ayers said in the past (and pre-COVID) cruise ships would stop in at the town and passengers would be given district tours on school buses.
Those school buses would then pick up children and take them back to the farms they called home.
"That just rings alarm bells to me," she said.
Given cruise ships are set to return to Australian shores, Ms Ayers said special consideration needed to be given to management and ports of origin.
Same situation or different?
If FMD is detected in Australia, would we face a similar situation to what the UK did two decades ago?
Ms Ayers said the short answer was yes.
She said an immediate national livestock standstill would be put in place for at least 72 hours.
Additionally, export markets to major trading partners would close immediately for animal and animal related products.
"All livestock on infected and potentially high risk premises would be quarantined, slaughtered and disposed of," Ms Ayers said.
"Contact tracing of all livestock movements, products and vehicles would also occur."
She said vaccination could be used as part of the control strategy, but depending on the extent of the outbreak, this could prolong the time taken to return to normal trade.
For this reason, the UK did not use vaccination in the 2001 outbreak.
"I would like to see more information from DPIRD on the likely use of vaccination and the probability of geographical areas in Australia being demarcated and able to continue trading," she said.
"For example - if there was an outbreak in the Eastern States, would WA be able to continue trading and operating in its own right?"
Shutdown of trade
WA's economy is export-orientated, accounting for about half of its exports of goods.
Ms Ayers said the major impact of an outbreak would not be not the cull of affected animals - as confronting as that would be.
She said it would be the entire shutdown of Australia's export trade in animal and animal products.
"We produce more than we consume, so if our products have no market what happens to livestock at the time we would normally turn them off farm? Ms Ayers asked.
"A return to trade requires proof of freedom of disease to our trading partners and this will take months to re-establish, after disease is eradicated.
"The animal welfare issues and economic impact seen in the UK due to restrictions or an inability to move and market animals was perhaps the biggest logistical challenge of all and lasted long beyond the outbreak itself."
So should a Bali or Indonesia travel ban be put in place?
Ms Ayers does not think so, saying we have existed safely without such bans to a large number of countries with endemic FMD for many years.
She does think biosecurity measures need to be ramped up at airports, ports and mail centres for illegal restricted materials and to increase penalties for breaches.
As for people movements, Ms Ayers said there needed to be increased levels of screening, disinfection of shoes, laundering of clothes and education on isolating them from farms and away from livestock for a couple of days after travel.
"I am very hopeful that with raised awareness and good biosecurity measures at our borders and onfarm we can avoid an FMD outbreak," she said.
"There is excellent comprehensive and up-to-date information on the DAFF (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) website and I would urge people to seek information from such reliable sources."
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